Is UFC 112 the Super-Card of the Year, or a Dud in the Making?

Elton HobsonCorrespondent IApril 6, 2010

UFC 112 this Saturday is headlined by two world title fights, featuring two of the best and most dominant champions this sport has ever produced. It is buoyed by a clash of legends, a strong and compelling undercard, and a massive promotional push by the UFC. It is the company’s first foray into the Middle East, and represents a new effort in Zuffa’s global marketing strategy.

By all indicators, it should be a blockbuster. But when it comes to luring that elusive “casual” MMA fan upon whom blockbuster PPV’s hinge, UFC 112 is much more of a crap shoot then the Zuffa marketing machine would have you believe.

UFC 112 could be the mega-card of 2009, building on the runaway success of March’s GSP headlined UFC 111 - or it could be another overseas, tape-delay PPV flop for the world‘s premier MMA brand.

The coin is up in the air, and which way it will fall is anyone’s guess. What’s important to remember is that BJ Penn and Anderson Silva, the two men Zuffa are counting on to bring in the PPV bucks, have teamed up on a card before. If we want to look for indicators of how this card will fare, we don’t have to look back very far.

UFC 101 last August was the surprise blockbuster event of 2009, drawing a hearty 850,000 PPV buys and selling out the Wachovia Center arena in Philly. In the main event fights, BJ Penn solidified his position as the world’s best lightweight fighter by outclassing consensus #2 Kenny Florian over four rounds. And Anderson Silva transcended perceptions, rankings, weight classes and even the laws of physics to nuke former LHW champ Forrest Griffin in about the time it takes you to finish this reading this sentence.

Once again this Saturday, these two champions and arguable Pound-for-Pound #1’s put their titles on the line. If UFC 101 is our only indicator, the combination of the two superstars should equal big time PPV buys.

But the calculus of what makes a successful PPV event is seldom that simple. UFC 101 benefited from the exposure it received in the previous month’s UFC 100, the biggest card in UFC history that was believed to be seen by over 16 million people. Many new fans tuned in for the first time to watch crossover (and literal) giant Brock Lesnar turn “Frank Murrs“ face into hamburger, before flipping off everyone and making lewd comments about his wife. In other words, high quality entertainment at its finest. Many of these fans may have been enticed by what they saw to tune in again.

The numbers show that whatever residual casual fan interest was left lingering by UFC 100 had dissipated within a month. UFC 102 later that same August, headlined by the massively popular Randy Couture fighting in his hometown, drew a modest 420,000 buys.

As is so often the case, the matchmaking played a huge role in making 101 the success that it was. BJ Penn was coming off a humiliating, Poland vs. Germany-esque defeat to arch-rival Georges St. Pierre, both in the cage and in the courtroom after the fight. There were questions circling about his heart, his commitment, even his legitimacy and place on the P4P list. As for Anderson, he was moving up to face a former champion in a weight class above him, one known for exciting, balls out slugfests. Those two “narratives” were compelling, authentic and had undeniable appeal for hardcore and casual fans alike.

This Saturday is a different story. Silva is defending his title for a record 6th time (it would be the 7th if Travis Lutter had made weight) and is looking for his 12th consecutive win. His opponent is Demian Maia, a very dangerous BJJ world champion who presents a legitimate challenge to “The Spider”. Unfortunately, what most fans probably best remember Maia for is being totally blown out of the water by Nate Marquardt. With that Mortal Kombat-worthy KO showing up on every 2009 highlight reel, it’ll be tough to convince fans that he’s the guy to dethrone Silva - especially since he’s coming in as a late replacement for the injured Vitor Belfort.

For BJ, it’s the same story. Frankie Edgar is a tough fighter with great wrestling credentials, Renzo Gracie trained BJJ, and ever improving standup. Unfortunately, no one is giving him a hope against Penn, who on paper has the New Jersey native’s number in every department. The odds on both these fights are some of the most disparate for any UFC event ever. Over 1000 points separate Silva (-600) from Maia (+400). BJ Penn (-800) is a whopping 1300 point favourite over Edgar (+500).

We know from the phenomenal success of UFC 111 that competitively matched fights aren’t necessary for big PPV returns. But that event benefited from weeks of “Countdown” inflated hype. It also benefited by featuring GSP, the biggest crossover athlete in MMA without a phallic chest tattoo. Put him in the Octagon with a warm body, and chances are you’ll do huge numbers.

Anderson and BJ are different stories, however. Penn has drawn big numbers in the past, but his success was always contingent on who his opponent was. Against established, big name stars like GSP or Sean Sherk, Penn fights draw considerable interest. Few are better at selling a fight then the mercurial Hawaiian. Without the benefit of a popular opponent, however, his numbers fall.

Anderson, too, is far from a proven PPV commodity. His most watched title bouts are his two fights with Rich Franklin, and his super fight with Dan Henderson - all fights where Silva was the “bad guy” destroying a popular, all-American fan favourite. Not exactly the way to endear yourself to the casual fans. In his other title defences against the likes of Thales Leites, Patrick Cote, and Nate Marquardt, his buyrate has been abysmal, far below what you would expect from the sport’s consensus #1.

Luckily for both men, the most recent news is good news. As mentioned above, 900,000 people tuned in to watch Silva enter the Matrix against Griffin, undoubtedly boosting casual fan interest in his next bout. For Penn, the respectable 620,000 buys his December bout with Diego Sanchez pulled shows that fans are buying Penn’s attempt to build a legacy at 155, and establish a dynasty like Hughes did at 170, or Liddell at 205.

At least, that’s what Dana White is hoping.

The final problem this card faces is geographical. Traditionally, UFC events that have aired on tape delay - such as the recent UFC 110 from Australia, or any of the UK PPV cards - tend to pull mediocre buyrates. This is because from 1 PM onwards, the results of the event are all over the internet. Within a few hours, any interested fan can find full video of the fights online without having to plunk down $44.99. It’s one of those structural problems that the UFC can’t really do anything about - unless they want to have all overseas events take place at 6 in the morning.

So is UFC 112 on course to be the can’t miss card of 2009, or just another tape delay event casual fans will skip? Are BJ Penn and Anderson Silva well known PPV draws, or have they always relied on intriguing opponents or storylines for their success? Is the recent glut of UFC events - the VERSUS card, UFC 111, the Gomi vs. Florian fight night, TUF 11 - over saturating the MMA market? Will the damn arena even be built in time?

It’s anyone’s guess. All I know is that I’ll be watching - and ironically, the fight I’m most looking forward to is Hughes vs. Renzo. Go figure.